Hundreds of British Sikhs gathered outside the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham on Sunday to protest against anti-terror police raids on activists campaigning for a Sikh homeland in India.
Concerns were raised about the “heavy-handed” nature of the dawn raids with one mother claiming that officers had smashed open her young childrens’ piggy banks and checked their sandwich boxes as they left for school.
West Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit had initially said it was investigating allegations of money laundering and extremist activity in India but was immediately accused of “pandering to Indian political pressure,′ by pro-independence lobbyists the Sikh Federation.
Detectives later clarified that they had acted on intelligence gathered in the UK, and said last week’s searches at addresses in Birmingham, Coventry, London and Leicester had not been directed by “outside forces.”
Sikh campaigners however believe the raids stem from intelligence gleaned from the interrogation of Scottish Sikh Jagtar Johal currently being held in a Punjab jail accused of funding the murders of Hindu politicians in India.
Mr Johal’s brother Gurpreet, 33, a solicitor from Dumbarton, told the rally that his brother had been tortured by Punjab police since he was detained without trial nearly one year ago.
“The British government has been dragging their heels about standing up for my brother and I’m afraid I feel it is because he is not white,“ he said.
“No-one from the UK is pushing for an independent medical examination of Jagtar and they haven’t even been able to secure a private meeting with him in jail.
“Jagtar is just an ordinary Scottish kid who was passionate about Sikh human rights and their continuing persecution in India. He is not a terrorist and his detention is an attempt to crush the call for a Sikh nation.”
About 400 Sikhs attended the protest outside the International Convention Centre in Birmingham city centre carrying placards accusing Britain of favouring trade deals with India over justice for Sikhs.
Speakers vowed to carry on the campaign for an independent Sikh nation and spoke disparagingly about Britain acting as a “lackey for the Indian government’ in trying, in their view, to silence the freedom movement.
About 70 officers are believed to have taken part in the co-ordinated raids and removed cash and electronic devices from the properties. There were no arrests.
The wife of one of the targets, who did not want to be named, told Huffpost UK detectives had smashed open her childrens’ piggy banks and seized their bank cards.
She said: “They even asked my teenage daughter to open her sandwich box before she left for school in a traumatised state. Some of my kids are on medication which was strewn all over the place by police as they searched.
“The officers had no respect and basically took over our house for the entire day taking computers, phones and hard drives.”
Within hours of the raids several pro-independence Sikh websites were no longer accessible.
The sites outlined grievances against India accusing the state of collaborating with Hindu mobs to target thousands of innocent Sikhs across India in revenge for the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984.
Scepticism regarding the raids led Britain’s first female Sikh MP and Chair of the APPG for British Sikhs Preet Kaur Gill to say: ’There is speculation that the police raids have political motives and targeting those activists who are outspoken on the 1984 Sikh Genocide issue. If this is the case it is totally unacceptable.”
She added that she would be raising this matter with the Home Secretary Sajid Javid, and in a meeting with the Chief Superintendent of West Midlands Police.
Calls for an independent Sikh homeland, Khalistan (Land of the Pure), stretch back to the days of partition in 1947, when the Punjab was divided between India and the then newly created Pakistan.
“The Muslims got Pakistan including half of Punjab and the Hindus were given all of India but Sikhs were left homeless despite having ruled the region for decades before the British invaded,” explained Raj Mann, a human rights activist.
CORRECTION: This article was amended to clarify that Raj Mann is a human rights activist, not a pro-independence campaigner as previously stated.